The Little Broomstick: Exploring the DNA of Spell Sweeper

I wanted to write a bit about the inspirational sources for my new middle-grade book, Spell Sweeper. Most people understandably connect Spell Sweeper with Harry Potter, but there are so many other “broom” or “magical learning” books that I was thinking of when I was generating ideas for Caradine Moone and her dysfunctional crew of magical janitors (Cara’s words, not mine). 

The book that served as a primary influence was The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. This is a classic book, originally published in 1971 (the edition in the photo is 2018 by Hodders Childrens Books). 

The Little Broomstick has a voice in the spirit of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and what really imprinted on me was the idea of a lonely broom sitting there, waiting to spring into action. And spring it does! When young Mary finds a broomstick, she accidentally ends up investing it with magic and it instantly whisks her away across the English countryside to arrive at Endor College, school of witchcraft. But this is not a lovely school—Mary discovers a menagerie of animals being subjected to evil experiments, including her own cat. With her broomstick as her trusty companion, Mary sets out to free the animals. 

This book is also the basis of the wonderful animated film Mary and the Witch’s Flower from Studio Ponoc.

Side note, I just love the use of the word “besom” in this book, which means “a broom made of twigs tied around a stick.”

My own “broom” book is out now. Spell Sweeper is available in hardbound, digital, and audiobook formats from your favorite outlet.

Door of the Day: Can we go to Narnia?

Door of the Day: Can we go to Narnia?

Today’s door of the day is very regal! I found this one in the parliament building in Quebec City. Yes, the doorknob looks like Aslan, but the door itself didn’t lead to Narnia, as I had hoped—maybe I should have tried twisting the handle the opposite direction.


Quebec City might be my favourite city in all of Canada! There are stone walls, interesting alleyways, a hotel like a castle (Château Frontenac) and, of course, many wonderful doors!






I’m posting my door inspirations from around the world to celebrate releases of The Secret of Zoone (paperback – January 28) and The Guardians of Zoone (February 25). There are a thousand doors in the nexus of Zoone, leading to a thousand worlds, and many of them have faces just like this “Aslan” door.

Purchase and preorder links for both Zoone books can be found HERE.


Happy book birthday to me!

Happy book birthday to me!
Today is the book birthday for THE SECRET OF ZOONE!

It has been a long journey!

The very first idea for this book arrived in my brain way back in 2007—before any of my current readers were even born!

There was a long period when I wasn’t sure if this book would ever see the light of a book shelf, or if I would even be published again at all. This can be a tough industry, but on days like today, we celebrate!

I want to thank everyone who helped bring this book to life:

My agent, 
Rachel Letofsky, for believing in Zoone way back when it was just a manuscript.

My incredible editor at HarperCollins, Stephanie Stein. I know most authors rave about their editors, but mine is actually APPEARING ON JEOPARDY this week, so I like to think that mine wins the sweepstakes! (But hopefully, not the literal sweepstakes at Jeopardy, because I don’t want her to retire.)

My cover team! I absolutely adore the art by Evan Monteiro and the hand lettering done by Michelle Taormina.

My pre-reading team: Nadia Kim, Bohyun Kim, Renuka Baron, Sarah Bagshaw, Kallie George, and Paige Mitchell.

Aunt Temperance's Zoone KeyJeff Porter, who took my simple design for a Zoone key and turned it into a file for 3D printing! (Doesn’t it look great

My Scooby Gang—your moral support has meant everything to me along the way.
All of my friends at Children’s Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia…; your moral support has also kept me going along the way.
The team at CWC, including Sarah-Steven Hong, Joon Park, and all the countless students. Many of them BEGGED to be in this book, so I decided to make you GLIBBERS. (If you don’t know what a glibber is, you will find out!)
My family, of course—biological, chosen, and otherwise! (My sister says this book is so good that it sounds like I didn’t even write it!)
And, the best for last: Marcie Nestman and Hiro, who have had to live with the rollercoaster life of an author and who have provided me with so much joy along the way.
It is such a privilege to be published by HarperKids Books. When I was a kid, my go-to series was The Chronicles of Narnia, currently published by . . . you guessed it! HarperCollins!

Dreams do come true!

The book is available at your favorite brick-and-mortar or online retailer. Here are some handy links for you . . .



Barnes & Noble:







I hope you enjoy discovering The Secret of Zoone.

A dwarf, a snow witch, and a white rabbit—Halloween is just another week in the studio


It’s no secret that Halloween is one of my favorite times of year. It’s an excuse to spend my time doing the same thing I do throughout the rest of the year—but without explanation or justification. Which is to build costumes and props. (I’m highly conscious of those stares coming from the clerks at my local Dollar Store when I’m frequenting their shop in Mid-May and buying an armful of wigs. In my defense, they’re not all for me. Some are for my art therapy and creative writing students.)

This year was a double-dip for me. The Surrey International Writers’ Conference always takes place the week before Halloween and this year I was invited to present. The conference had a theme on the Friday Night: Once Upon a Time Machine.

“You don’t have to dress up,” board member kc dyer told me.

Yeah, right. I probed further to find out that the “Once Upon a Time Machine” theme was basically to do with fairy tales. Or steam punk. Or both.

I could have easily just used my costume that I was working on for Halloween, but I’ll take any excuse to build. So I decided to go as steampunk White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland.

The inspiration came when I found a hat in the local costume shop with a pair of rabbit ears and a clock on it. It didn’t quite make sense, since the designer seem to be conflating two characters: the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit.

But it was enough to get me started. I bought the hat, removed the cheap plastic clock and put on my own steampunked version using the lid from a glass milk bottle and a plastic plumbing component. I still wanted a proper clock for the White Rabbit to carry, so I started building the clock at the same time. Here’s my work in progress:



As you can see, the cat was wholly unimpressed. Here’s the completed clock and hat. For the hat, I also ended up goggles decorated with different steampunk components.


I still needed some other pieces for the costume. I swooped into Carousel Theatre’s annual costume theatre in early October and scooped up some great pieces for my costume, including a colorful vest. Then it was just a matter of tracking down a few other pieces, such as white gloves and a fake nose. Luckily, I had kept an old pair of round spectacles. People think I bought Harry Potter glasses at a costume shop, but these used to be my real glasses that I wore long before Harry Potter existed. Back then, we called them John Lennon glasses.



The final costume came together very well:




The costume was a big hit at the conference. As kc dyer told me, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done.” (Well, I have written a book or two, as well. Which I thought was the reason I had been invited to speak at the conference—but, hey, I’ll take my invites any way I can get them.)

Speaking of kc, here is a photo of me and her at the conference. She went as steampunk fairy godmother. So, we pretty much rocked.


After the conference, it was time to turn my attention in earnest to Halloween. My wife and I had decided way back in July that we would go for a Narnia theme. Marcie decided to be Jadis, the snow witch. I wasn’t entirely sure who I would go as. My initial thoughts were Digory from The Magician’s Nephew—I could wear an English boy’s suit and carry a silver apple.

But then I decided it would be more fun to go as the snow witch’s dwarf slave. He goes unnamed in the book, though in the Disney movie he is known as Ginarrbrik. I already own many bits and bobs that would go well with his outfit. The main things to figure out were the nose, the beard, and his hat.

As it turned out, my mom found a faux-fur coat at Value Village and was able to make me both a hood and a vest from it. I pinned my ears to the hood so that I wouldn’t have to contend them falling off all night (which they always do when I put them on my own ears.)


As for the beard, I bought two of the exact kind from the costume shop then set out using pieces from the one to augment the other, distressing them with paint and braiding them with bits of twine. I didn’t want it to look too polished—after all, this was just a dirty minion of the snow witch!


I was able to buy a fairly high-quality nose from the costume shop and just attached it with spirit gum. I also took snippets from the beard to attach to my eyebrows. Put it all together and the result turned out quite well:



Here’s me with Marcie as Jadis:


She ended up buying a wedding dress from Value Village then augmenting it was a white faux-fur throw rug. She made the staff with a Christmas ornament. As for the crown, she procured that from Etsy.


A key part of the costume was all of her make-up:


We attended our annual “Scooby-Gang” Halloween party. The costumes there can get quite intense. Here are some fun photos from the party . . .

First of all, here is the amazing cake made by my friend, Carrie. YES, that’s a cake. (And it tasted delicious. Though, admittedly, I ate a part that didn’t involve the eyeball.)


Here’s this year’s host, Luke and Kallie, as a phoenix tamer and dragon tamer. The phoenix cried real tears and had flapping wings while the dragon could open it’s mouth. halloween2016_phoenixdragontamer

I guess Ginarrbrik can’t compete with Dilbert. He ended up getting a kiss from the snow witch. That’s my friend Jeff inside the costume. He built Dilbert from scratch.


This is my friend Carrie (of cake fame) as a zombie hunter.


My friend James also went as a zombie hunter.


James has already stated in one of his blog posts that his costume has inspired his writing in all sorts of ways. That’s really cool—because it underscores something I’ve long believed: when you are a creative writer, you have to be creative in many areas of your life. And that’s why I spend so much studio time not staring at a computer screen, but building props and costumes. And that, takes us full circle.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

The creation of Kendra Kandlestar: Designing Whispers

boxofwhispers-3dIn my ongoing blog series to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the publication of Kendra Kandlestar and the Box of Whispers, I’ve talked about the setting, heroes, antagonists, and overall inspiration for the book.

For this installment, I’m discussing the visual design. Since I come from a graphic design background and am also the illustrator of the series, I was allowed to have a strong say in the overall look of the book—which is far from the normal situation in publishing.

I had a lot of passion for the way the books should be presented, so I was accommodated! When I was a child, my favorite books were those from the turn-of-the-century, when art deco was the flavor of the day. In those books, such as the Oz series by L. Frank Baum, art, text, and delightful elements of design seemed to dance together to create a magic portal into the world of storybook.

This was very much a tradition I wanted to echo when it came time to present Kendra Kandlestar to the world. This is most dramatically seen on the first page of each chapter in The Box of Whispers, which makes use of large, elaborate typography. I looked in particular to Ozma of Oz (Chapter 1 shown below, left).  Published in 1907, this third book in the Oz series was illustrated by John R. Neill (and was also my favorite in the series as a child).


Here are some of the other “chapter title pages” in The Box of Whispers:

Box of Whispers.indd Box of Whispers - Interior.indd Box of Whispers - Interior.indd

Incidentally, I should mention that the character featured in the illustration above was named after one of my favorite characters in the Narnia series, Puddleglum. Since my character—Pugglemud—was encountered in a marsh, just like C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, I thought it would be a nice homage. The characters share nothing else in common and, at the time, I thought Pugglemud would play his role in the story and then quietly slip away. Unfortunately, he’s rather like a bad weed; he kept coming back in future books. If I had known this, I probably would have not given him a name that is so similar to Puddleglum.

Box of Whispers - Interior.indd Crack in Kazah - interior.indd Box of Whispers.indd

It goes without saying that I was very pleased when one of the early reviews for The Box of Whispers made a comparison between it and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For the final installment, I’ll talk about some of the fun fan engagement that’s happened with the book.

Crafting a Kingdom – Part 5: Creating History

kendra_reads_shortI’ve saved the best for last in my blog series on world building. Creating history for your world can really help bring some texture to an imagined world, giving it some foundation, and making it seem more real—just like the societies, cultures, and communities we find in our own world.

You can create history in a number of ways. In fact, it’s directly connected to two other key components of world building that I’ve discussed in earlier posts: culture and iconography.

But you can take it a step further, and have some fun in the process, by writing a myth, legend, folktale, newspaper article—essentially, an “exterior” story. To me, the great part about this type of writing means that you get to run around in your world without the pressure of heeding your novel’s main plot.

Some of this historical writing might purely be for you, the author. It will inform your portrayal of the world in your novel. But, then again, you may also want to include some of this writing in your novel, especially if it connects directly to your plot.

belgariadThere are many ways to do this. Some authors write myths for their world and include them at the beginning of their novels. David Eddings did this in his Belgariad series, as his myth established the central plot problem in his world.

Many of my creative writing stories like this format, in which they start their books with long-winded myths. I generally find myself turning off. Personally, I prefer it when authors weave their myths into the tapestry of their narrative. I’m just not sure how much readers will care about a myth (unless it’s really engaging, like the Belgariad myth) until they understand how it relates or impacts the protagonist. So I prefer that the myths inform my characters (and their journeys) along the way.

We can look at some of the other fantasy masters for inspiration.

beedlethebardIn Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling has written many exterior stories. Some of these she used in a whole other book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard. One of the tales contained in the book, “The Tale of the Three Brothers,” is core to the plot in the original Harry Potter books.

C.S. Lewis did a similar thing with Narnia. Even though The Magician’s Nephew is chronologically the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia, it is actually the book that Lewis wrote sixth. It’s essentially a prequel.

“This is a very important story,” wrote C.S. Lewis about The Magician’s Nephew, “because it shows  how all the comings and goings between our own world and the Land of Narnia first began.” As a child, I adored this book, because it explained how the wardrobe and the lamppost came to be—not to mention all of Narnia.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is abundant in exterior stories, mostly myths and legends. It’s one of the reasons his world is so compelling. He often incorporates his myths right into the narrative, having characters relate them to each other, as is the case with the myth of the one ring.


I have to say my favourite example of including myths in a novel can be found in Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Throughout the book, the rabbit characters tell stories of the trickster folk hero, El-ahrairah. The tales serve to inspire the rabbits and give them courage during their journeys—or simply to entertain them, depending on what is happening in that particular scene. By the end of the book, the reader comes to realize that the culture of the rabbits absorbs all heroic characters and remembers them in the form of El-ahrairah; he is a composite of many heroic figures, including Hazel, the hero of Watership Down. It was these myths that made me fall in love with this book as a child.

I’ve tried to follow the lead of some of these great authors in my own writing, preferring to include my myths as part of the overall story. For example, in Kendra Kandlestar and the Door to Unger, we get to read along with Kendra the “The Tale of the  Wizard Greeve.”

Here’s a photo of my sketchbook, where this myth first took shape.


In fact, many short stories and tales that are connected to Kendra Kandlestar’s Land of Een begin in my sketchbook. I’ve written dozens of them. Many of them are about how a town in the Land of Een was given a particular name or about how a particular aspect of the Land of Een came to be. The majority of these tales don’t appear in the Kendra Kandlestar books themselves, but I have included many of them on my website, as part of an online “Eencyclopedia.”

I’ve been talking mostly about fantasy writing here, but it’s important to emphasize that you can employ this technique of building history for all sorts of genres. After all, the purpose here is to make the world that your characters walk around in seem real. So if a myth doesn’t fit your particular genre, you could try other devices such as newspaper articles, TV reports, or letters written by long-deceased relatives of the characters.

One of my young creative writing students recently chose to do a newspaper article to connect with his novel. He really was inspired:

Uada Times Corrected

* * *

Well, that’s my series on world building. Ultimately, I think it just comes down to making up a set of logic, and then making sure you live by that logic. It can take some time to do this, of course, but I think it’s worth it. It will ultimately make the overall writing process flow more smoothly. And, in the meantime, it’s a whole lot of fun!

Crafting a Kingdom – Part 4: Symbols

In my continuing blog series on world building, I’m devoting this week’s post to iconography. Every world has symbols that show up in a variety of ways. Some are obvious, like flags, seals, or crests, while others are less obvious, such as the color of a uniform, or the shape of a door knocker. The more you can think about iconography, the more texture you can add to a world.

In my opinion, there are two things to keep in mind here. The first is to make sure your symbols match the culture you are assigning them too. To give an extreme and obvious example, you wouldn’t assign a star or a rainbow to a warrior culture. But you can also think of this in more subtle means.

For instance, in my Kendra Kandlestar series, the Eens are a peaceful, timid, and humble people. When I was first designing the Elder Stone, the political center of the land, I envisaged it as a tall and palatial structure. I quickly realized that this didn’t match their culture. They were a people more likely to hide than to boast, so the final design ended up looking more like a natural rock.

Elder Stone concept.

The Elder Stone

As such, the Eens don’t have a flag or a crest of arms; these things are too ostentatious for them. But they do have a lot of symbols that work their way into their daily life. First of all, each Een (except for many of the animals) wears braids, which is an homage to their founder, Leemus Longbraids. And then there are the magical shapes, such as stars, moons, and bells, that find their ways into their fashion. Animal shapes and faces, especially those of owls, can be found in Een architecture or even in their pottery, which is due to the fact that Eens have a strong connection to nature.


Of course, most fantasy worlds incorporate some sort of iconography, which especially comes out in illustrations. I always loved the “Z” embedded within the “O” that can be found throughout the Land of Oz:


Narnia, of course, is all about the symbol of Aslan.


A story like Watership down has symbols too. There are the different scratches or “marks” given to the rabbits in the warren of Efrafra. The marks denote which rabbits are slaves and which ones are members of the Owlsa (the ruling rabbits).

Hogwarts school in Harry Potter makes extensive use of colours and symbols. Any fan will quickly recite to you the colours and symbol of each house in the school, which is illustrated on the wonderful coat of arms:


These are the types of details that bring much delight to readers, and I like to think that authors should take great delight in creating them. In fact, I often have my students start their world creation process by creating symbols. A fun project is to start with a coat of arms. As students consider the types of colors and symbols they want to include in their worlds (their stories), then they begin to instinctively develop culture.







The other benefit of working with symbols is that it can also be a way for the creator to show (rather than tell) the difference between cultures within a story. Just as competing sports teams have different logos, separate societies should be marked by their symbols.

Above, I described some of the symbols the Eens have incorporated into their culture. Their sworn enemies, the troll-like Ungers, use quite a different set of motifs. Mostly, their symbols are very sharp, reflecting their tusks, claws, and teeth. Even their drums are tusk shaped and their war paint also features many sharp-edged symbols.

Unger drum


In the next and final post in this series, I’ll discuss myth building.